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Andrew Harrison
December 2016.
138
Can male writers really write the female mind?
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THE AUTHOR OF THE QUESTION HAS APPROVED THIS ANSWER

In my case, I was drawn to the idea of reinterpreting Homer’s Odyssey [as the comic book ODY-C] because I wanted to tell a classic Campbell-style hero myth specifically for my daughter. That, plus I realised that they’d never let me write Wonder Woman. I thought the idea of treating the Odysseus archetype not as a father coming home from the Trojan War but as a mother returning to her child – and to put her in the aftermath of a space war, in a universe without men – would resonate with her, and with me.

To the question of how you get inside a female mind, it’s essentially the same as getting into a male mind. What informs ODY-C is that the world is different, rather than the gender politics. It’s an almost exclusively female universe, and a violent one, so how would that play out? [Artist] Christian Ward and I present none of the women as especially maternal, so there are nature-vs-nurture debates about character and violence. These women inhabit a fantastical universe of gods and monsters, and their female nature might be incidental to that. What it all illuminates, for me anyway, is how western pop culture handles maleness. These are stories about warriors and their ethical code and credo is more important to them, and their world, than their gender.

  • ODY-C: “It’s an almost exclusively female universe, and a violent one. How would that play out?”  

Writing ODY-C reminded me not just how little presence women have in fiction – it’s tiny, like vanishingly small – but in non-fiction too. I re-read the Histories by Herodotus, which was the first time someone thought we should actually write down things than happened. In the fourth paragraph he writes of the abduction of Helen of Troy that no woman ever gets kidnapped who doesn’t really want it. Literally from the moment we began writing things down, we began devaluing women as people, let alone characters. Writing the book made me think how easy it is not to consider women, to not cross-identify, because as a man you’re rarely asked to, whereas we ask it of literally the rest of the planet in our cultural output constantly.

“Literally from the moment we began writing things down, in Herodotus’s Histories, we began devaluing women as people, let alone characters.”

There is a reason we put one of the only men in our universe, a character called He of Troia, in a bull mask. We are never going to see his face, his face doesn’t matter. He has one purpose: he’s a bull, he’s there to inseminate. He’s a sexual, reproductive object. So what would it look like if you wanted to advertise that pure, functional sexual potency in a man rather than a woman? How do you advertise sexual potency to a woman? How do you do it visually? I wanted to write, to find, a ‘female gaze’ that felt true to me within the confines of the world of our book, and not just the male gaze, only reversed.

So rather than getting into the female mind, ODY-C is an exercise in using a different universe to look at gender dynamics. The narrative events of the Odyssey are taken a given. You can’t and shouldn’t deviate. Instead you find yourself asking, what would it be like to write a man as if he were the princess in the tower? All these endless myths of women locked away and treated like treasure, well what would that mean if it were a man? To be an object of such great sexual potency that two great societies would go to war over you? That was where it really got interesting for me, just as a reader, let alone a writer.

Writing ODY-C has been an exercise in empathy, and we were very influenced by a book called Odysseus In America: Combat Trauma And The Trials of Homecoming – an analysis of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers – and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad which retells the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife Penelope. That was informative because it breaks down the myth and turns it into a refreshing, magic-free way of interpreting the story.

Though I don’t have education in these fields, we’ve heard that the book is being taught by classicists. To have people who actually know what they’re talking about reaching out to me has been remarkable. I’m getting that education now, it seems. And it’s been fun to read things I haven’t read since I was 13 or 14, with a more adult mind that can see the parallels, make the connections that I couldn’t make back then. It’s been fun to revisit foundational western literature.

Ultimately scripts are epistolary, they’re a letter from a writer to an artist. Working on a book like this with an artist like Christian, you get to be a fan. What do I want to see from this fantastic artist whose work I love? We wanted a colourful, European, Metal Hurlant science fiction feel, we wanted Cirque du Soleil, beautiful bodies of all shapes and sizes – and I wanted to back away and let him do it the way he wanted. It’s been a constant process of oneupmanship between the two of us and Christian gets better with every issue, every single time. 

ODY-C: CYCLE ONE collects the first 12 issues of Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s series in a special hardback edition with extras including teaching aids and commentary essays by classicist Dani Coleman.